>Tana French’s The Likeness: A Review

>I just fnished reading http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=00FF0F&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=0143115626. What an absolutely delightful book, my friends! I enjoyed every one of its 480 pages profoundly. Tana French is a young Irish writer. The Likeness is one of those really good books that its female author tries to masquerade as a mystery novel. The mystery itself is not bad, especially if you manage to get over a few of the initial premises that border on the fantastic.

Cassie Maddox, a young Irish policewoman, goes undercover among a group of PhD students who live in an old house they are attempting to restore. This premise is, of course, highly unrealistic. Graduate students in literature have a certain way of talking and acting that cannot be faked. In reality, un undercover police officer would have blown her cover during the very first discussion on why Lacan is wrong about everything and Eagleton’s new-found essentialism is annoying. Nobody can fake writing a doctoral dissertation convincingly. You have either lived through that process or not.

Having said that, however, I have to confess that French’s writing is so good that soon enough you forget about these inconsistencies and even forget to care about the identity of the killer. The Likeness is a beautifully written story about today’s Ireland. It offers incisive criticism of modern consumer society without falling into the trap of bemoaning the good old days:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on.

What makes this novel so enjoyable is that, in places, it reaches the level of insightfulness that is normally completely our of reach for the mystery genre writers. In The Likeness, the main conflict arises – and eventually leads to murder – because of a profound dissatisfaction that the characters of the novel feel with the very structure of society:

Part of the debtor mentality is a constant, frantically suppressed undercurrent of terror. We have one of the highest debt-to-income ratios in the world, and apparently most of us are two paychecks from the street. Those in power—governments, employers—exploit this, to great effect. Frightened people are obedient—not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. If your employer tells you to work overtime, and you know that refusing could jeopardize everything you have, then not only do you work the overtime, but you convince yourself that you’re doing it voluntarily, out of loyalty to the company; because the alternative is to acknowledge that you are living in terror. Before you know it, you’ve persuaded yourself that you have a profound emotional attachment to some vast multinational corporation: you’ve indentured not just your working hours, but your entire thought process. The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought are those who—either because they’re heroically brave, or because they’re insane, or because they know themselves to be safe—are free from fear.

Just this one paragraph makes the novel absolutely worth reading for me.

The Likeness is only Tana French’s second novel and an obvious improvement on her first one, In the Woods. I can’t wait to see how far this growing author will go. Her talent is undeniable and her command of the language is unique. Maybe one day she will feel strong enough to stop hiding behind the protective screen of the mystery genre and will write actual literature. I have no doubt that French has enough talent to achieve that.

>Zoe Heller’s The Believers: A Review

>Zoe Heller keeps producing books that could have been great if she had only managed to stick to her original purpose without getting distracted. Her novel What Was She Thinking? : Notes on a Scandal: A Novel was not bad at all, and if you think otherwise, it is probably because you were put off by the pretty weak film version http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=00FFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B000NIVJFY. I have just finished Heller’s new novel http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=DDDD00&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=B002SB8P5G and at first I really liked it. The beginning of The Believers is simply hilarious, and it’s no wonder that the book made the Best Books of 2009 list by Publishers Weekly. Heller ridicules – often in a pretty vicious way – a certain type of self-righteous leftists whose holier-than-thou attitude sometimes conceals pettiness and unenviable nastiness. You can get a pretty good idea about the first part of the novel from the following quote: “Karla always spoke of Mike’s job as a union organizer with the reverence of a missionary wife describing her husband’s evangelical work in Borneo.

Unfortunately, somewhere after the first third of the novel, Heller decided to abandon this line of her story and turned to creating a trite, boring, and repetitive melodrama. The children of the above-mentioned self-righteous leftists are understandably disillusioned by their parents’ political agenda and start looking for the meaning of life in drugs, affairs and Orthodox Judaism. Among these three solutions as they are described by Heller, the drug addiction is presented as pretty much the most innocuous one.

In one of my previous reviews, I wrote about the lamentable tendency of female writers to feel scared of writing an actual work of literature. These talented authors escape from the task of writing good novels by turning to secondary genres. Gillian Flynn retreats into the realm of the mystery genre, while Heller falls into the cheap tear-jerking melodrama. The same as with Flynn, we see in The Believers a gifted writer who is somehow too afraid of her own gift to let it flourish. In our patriarchal society, even very talented women obviously have a very hard time believing that they can dedicate their lives to anything other than trivialities. Trivial literature, trivial lives, trivial occupations; women still often see themselves as secondary human beings, secondary writers, and secondary artists.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: A Review

>A patriarchal system invests men with the duty to talk and think about serious issues, while women are expected to dedicate their lives to trivialities. We can still see this set of expectations at work on a daily basis. During parties, men talk about politics, philosophy, and the meaning of life, while women are huddled together on the other side of the room, swapping muffin recipes. In class, female students rarely dare to offer their opinions on big-picture questions. They leave such questions to men and dedicate themselves to answering questions  that are detail-oriented. I always know that when I ask “Is Hugo Chavez good for Venezuela?”, I will get no female responses. But if I ask “When did Chavez come to power?”, many female students will offer an answer. This doesn’t happen because women are less capable of or less interested in analyzing serious issues. For the longest time, any woman who attempted to leave the realm of muffin-baking and affirm herself in the public sphere was castigated. This is why it is still difficult for women to believe that the sphere of great endeavors and important issues is just as much theirs as men’s.

The saddest thing to observe is when this happens in the realm of creative activities. Often, incredibly talented women seem not to dare to enter the world of art and assert themselves there. They prefer to limit themselves to secondary genres and pretty much waste their creative gift on producing works of art that manage to entertain but are never taken seriously.

Gillian Flynn is a perfect example of such a female writer. From the first paragraphs of her novel  Dark Places, it is obvious that she is an extremely talented author. Flynn writes with incredible poignancy about life on a small Kansas farm nearing bankruptcy, about the tragedy of being a teenager in rural America, about the horrible burden of childhood trauma, about the damage caused by the purity movement. Her mastery of the English language is breathtaking. Dark Places: A Novel could be a great work of literature but for one thing.

As many other female writers, Flynn unfortunately shies away from creating art. She follows in the footsteps of such talented writers as Ruth Rendell and PD James and confines herself to the realm of mystery novel. She takes what could have been a great novel and adds some mystery genre devices that are boring, conventional, and that feel completely alien to the main body of  Dark Places: A Novel. She still doesn’t manage to kill the novel completely. Everything but the last couple of chapters is truly fantastic. I would even recommend stopping reading the book 20-25 pages before it ends to avoid spoiling your experience of the novel.

Flynn is a great writer in the making. I truly hope that she will lose her fear of competing in the big leagues and will allow her creative gift to unfold without being fettered by these conventional limitations that plague so meny female writers.

>Sarah Langan’s The Keeper: A Female Horror Novel

>The Kindle store of Amazon has become my favorite online place after my own blog. They often offer books absolutely for free so that people can get acquainted with new authors. This is how I came across The Keeper, a debut horror novel by Sarah Langan. The genre of the horror novel has always been very productive for female writers. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlotte Bronte’s profoundly feminist Jane Eyre set a very high standard for the writers who want to create a work belonging to this genre.

Initially, a was a bit leery of this novel. I was afraid that this debut work would be a disappointment and a waste of time. I have to read a lot as part of my job, so taking on a new novel by a writer I know nothing about means taking time away from more pressing readings that need to be done. However, I am definitely not sorry that I read this book.

Langan is great at descriptions of everyday life in a small town in Maine. A disillusioned, washed-out teacher who is drinking himself into an early grave, a high-school girl trying to come to terms with abuse within her own family, a mother trying to avoid the knowledge that her husband abused his own daughter, the slow disintegration of life in the town that inhabitants of Bedford attribute to its being haunted: this is all narrated with a great economy of artistic means and produces a very powerful impression.

Where Langan fails, however, is in the creation of horror scenes. She is a powerful realist writer but for some reason Langan must believe that adding horror scenes will make her book more powerful. That doesn’t happen. I almost abandoned the book at the very beginning when I encountered a very sloppy and overdone horror scene. It seems like the author watched many bad Hollywood movies and is guided by the imagery they suggested to her. Often, you can practically see the writer attempting to create a text that could be turned into a movie. This, of course, doesn’t make for good writing. Everything is exaggerated, to the point of becoming obnoxious. These insistent and extremely ornate horror passages come into a sharp contrast with the beautifully simple prose of the rest of the novel. Stranngely, Langan understands the power of understatement everywhere except in the horror scenes. If she had paid closer attention to her famous predecessors in the genre, she would have noticed that the atmosphere of horror is best created not through detailed descriptions of blood and gore but by a mere suggestion of something scary lurking in the background.

Another problem I had with the book were the chapter titles that reminded me of the way TV show episodes sometimes are named: “The Husband of the Woman Who Jumped Out the Window (Fall from Grace)”, “Guy Walks into a Bar”, “Excruciatingly Tight Acid-Washed Jeans.” This seemed completely out of place in a novel like The Keeper. I am happy that I didn’t see the table of contents before I started reading the book (thanks to the Kindle it’s possible to skip the table of contents), or I wouldn’t have even begun the novel.

I’m not sorry I read http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=00FFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=006087290X, but unless Langan decides to turn to what she does best – a straightforward realist narrative – I don’t think I’ll read another novel by this author.